I am titling this section World Ending Technologies, rather than the Bomb, because there is a level of importance to the way which Vonnegut chooses to end the world in Cat’s Cradle, and yes, he does end the world. There is no hopeful rebuilding, there is no promise of tomorrow. Jonah survives only with a few of his fellow Hoosiers, and Bokonon himself. What is more important, though, is that it is not nuclear weapons that end the world, but a substance called ice-nine. The world ends in a terrible storm that comes from all of the water on earth freezing, and any touching of this new type of ice leads to the death of any life-form made up of any amount of water. It is an important distinction that Vonnegut makes, ending the world in this way. The Bomb exists in the world of Cat’s Cradle. Felix Hoenikker is one of the masterminds of the atomic project, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are events in the Cat’s Cradle timeline. His reaction to a testing of the bomb is memorialized by his son, Newt. “After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said ‘What is sin?'”[1]

The Bomb is what Jonah intends to write about when he begins his account in Cat’s Cradle, what he sees to be the more interesting story. “When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended. The book was to be factual. The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.”[2] He is trying to track the human element of the Bomb, both the making of it, and everything that lead up to, and including, its use on a civilian population. “My book is going to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb.”[3] Felix Hoenikker is the character behind the making of the Bomb that he chooses to study, and it is that choice that leads him to San Lorenzo and ultimately the events that end the world.

Before venturing anything further, it is important to clarify both the connection between Irving Langmuir and Felix Hoenikker, while making it abundantly clear that one is a historical figure and the other is a fictional character. In three separate interviews, in Playboy, The Nation, and The Paris Review, Vonnegut discusses that Langmuir is his inspiration for Hoenikker, for various reasons. Many of the anecdotes he tells about Hoenikker are true for Langmuir, the similarities between General Forge and General Electric in terms of their industrial labs lends further credence to this connection. However, to call Irving Langmuir an entirely amoral person in the way that Hoenikker is would be incorrect, and would also miss the point that Vonnegut was trying to make with Felix Hoenikker. Irving Langmuir found science to be fun, and he do practice science for the sake of doing science without much consideration for the consequences of his experiments, but he also took immense pleasure in teaching others how to do science, because he believed that they would share in his joy.[4] While he did neglect his wife, it seemed not to stem from a position of indifference but rather from a basic social ineptitude.[5] While Langmuir is certainly the inspiration for Felix Hoenikker, Vonnegut takes the idea of the amoral and indifferent scientist to a new level with Hoenikker specifically to create a caricature of the extreme type of scientist that Vonnegut imagines, in a way that does not represent the actual character of Langmuir. Vonnegut takes the person of Langmuir and extends many of the trouble attributes of the twentieth century scientist into a fictionalized account. While Langmuir stands as the inspiration for Hoenikker, moving forward it is important to remember that they are not one and the same.

Vonnegut’s choice was not to end the world using the Bomb, but instead a device of weather control was chosen. This can only be to further the connection between Irving Langmuir and Felix Hoenikker. While Langmuir did not work on the Bomb during World War II, he did work closely with the United States military, working on projects aimed at improving radar technology and deicing airplane wings, the latter project acted as a stepping stone for Langmuir’s work with Bernard on “Project Cirrus.”

Langmuir did not ever come out directly against the uses of the bomb, and that would seem to not hold any importance, since he was not a nuclear scientists, except for the fact that Langmuir wrote an article for the volume One World or None, a collection of essays written by prominent scientists and military men in 1946, discussing nuclear weapons and nuclear war at length. Langmuir spends the short page of his article begging for international peace, and a governing body to oversee these new dangerous weapons, claiming that making peace with the Soviet Union is the best course of action to avoid a nuclear war.[6] However, he believes that nuclear weapons are a necessary part of the progress of the human race, and that building more of these weapons is not necessarily wrong, just using them on civilian populations is. Langmuir’s project of choice, at the end of his long career at General Electric, was work on weather control and cloud seeding, so it is no coincidence that the character Vonnegut creates to model after Langmuir in Cat’s Cradle creates a substance which can fundamentally change the weather of the entire planet. It also helps that ice-nine itself supposedly comes from the mind of Irving Langmuir and a pitch he made to H.G. Wells during a visit to the industrial research lab.[7]

The reality of ice-nine has not come to fruition, but Vonnegut was still living in a period that had the shadow of the bomb deeply cast across it. Irving Langmuir was not the only scientist who contributed to One World or None, though he was, perhaps, the most willing to reconcile his differences with the Soviet Union. It would seem that Langmuir was less concerned about ideological differences, than he was with the overall notion of peace. That is not to say, that that particular collection of texts was not concerned with peace, because it very much was, but instead that it was not concerned with extending the hand of friendship to the Soviet Union.[8] Albert Einstein warned of the modern weaponry’s advantage as a means of offense, or attack, rather than defense, and that these weapons could lead those in charge to waging a preventative war.[9] Philip Morrison, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, warns of a similar approach to war, one of perpetual motion, which can only be ended by stunning the enemy in the most horrific manner.[10] For some, such as Einstein, the Bomb was always a terrible thing, the destruction it could bring was not worth the knowledge about nature of the physical world and the insight that was given to the physical conditions of man’s life. However, for many, such as Morrison and Oppenheimer, it was only after the use of the Bomb, that the true danger of such a weapon was realized. Samuel Allison, head of the University of Chicago institute of nuclear studies, said in 1946, “All of us had a momentary elation when our experiment met with success, but that feeling rapidly changed to a feeling of horror and fervent hope that no more bombs would be dropped. When the second bomb was released, we felt it was a great tragedy.”[11]

Based on Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano, it would seem that corporations, and corporate scientists who bought into the idea of becoming an organization man, were the movers and shakers of this period in the eyes of Vonnegut,  not the military, not the government. Time and time again, it is the creators of technology and science in Vonnegut’s mind, those who see technological fixes to complex emotional problems, that are driving the narrative of science and enterprise in this period. However, the reality may have been a bit more complex. While there were many scientists who were opposed to the use of nuclear weapons, and their very existence, it would be incorrect to make the assertion that all scientists shared the belief of the many who worked on the text One World or None, despite how visible those individuals were. Americans had to evolve their technology because they were caught in a merciless evolutionary process. Thus throughout the 1950s, as growing concerns about fallout and the arms race were expressed by the public, Cold Warriors argued that the continuation of testing and proliferation were necessary in order to continue the search for ‘cleaner’ weapons. The nuclear bomb dropped in Japan was unprecedented because of the project’s secrecy, unlike the Holocaust which was preceded by the killing of other civilians and soldiers. Both the Holocaust and the bomb, rather, confirmed for intellectuals what they felt they already knew, and save all future discussions, highbrow and middlebrow, new reference points for the danger in which man stood.[12] There are certain themes of cold war science that need to be recognized. Americanization of science in other countries, transnationalization of science in America, importance of local context and individual agency, the scientization of previously unformalized bodies of knowledge and practice, instrumentalization of science both in its methods and its goals, and the application of this formal instrumental knowledge to the reconstruction of minds, bodies, and behaviors. The leaders of American science in collaboration with corporate, political, academic, and later military elites created a new governing ideology in American in the years from the early twentieth century to the 1960s, one that relocated social authority away from local elites and political parties and toward a new national class of interrelated elite institutions in the public and private sectors.[13]

American engineer, Vannevar Bush, painted a picture of American science during the immediate post-war period that American scientists and engineers were reluctant to use biological and radiological warfare, and yet, the evidence runs counter to that argument, since there was both a race against the Soviets to obtain such weapons (the idea that if they had them, we have to have them to protect ourselves) as well as the fact that those types of weapons were often cheap and lethal on a large scale.[14] There was an idea that science and technology were now areas of national interests, and characters such as Bush had a specific place in the American imagination as painters of a picture for what science and technology could be in the early Cold War. It would seem that there was an active attempt to color the appearance of scientists and military personnel involved in these projects as reluctant to use the materials which they were creating. This is different, of course, from the scientists who were adamantly opposed to use weapons and were not taking part in their creation any longer after the dropping of the atomic bombs. Emerging was an idea that science could fix all of the major problems in the world, such is the case of Irving Langmuir’s approach to weather control, and the subsequence attempts at controlling the weather that followed into the 1950s and 1960s.[15] American science had already one World War II, so it was only a matter of time before it won the Cold War. Many of the scientists who held such beliefs, were of the same kind as Langmuir and Bush, career corporate scientists.

Scientific militarism was not something imposed on scientists. It was the culmination of a long process of ideological and institutional change that was driven as much by the professional and political ambitions of scientists as it was by the ambitions of military and political officials.[16] Scientists felt it was their duty to shape policy after the dropping of the Bomb “As a chemist wrote in 1946 in the technical journal Chemical and Engineering News, far from the public eye: “Because chemists had a major share in bringing the bomb into being, chemists have a special responsibility…to educate the public and especially our politicians of the necessity for intelligent action before it is too late.”[17] Even Dwight Eisenhower accommodated himself to the ideas of scientific militarism in spite of his instinctive uneasiness over its implications. But Eisenhower, like the moderate managers of state science, embraced the paralyzing notion that corporate prosperity and the proliferation of weapons technology were two sides of the same ideological coin.[18] Both were the results of the evolution of American science and American enterprise and thus were beyond political challenge. He saw his role as simply one of managing the balance between economic and military strength. The public that benefited from greater prosperity and opportunity in the late 1950s and throughout the following decades began to ask questions about the rectitude and the powers of the professions, the corporations, the universities, and the government itself.

The orientation of the American state toward militarism and corporate expansion came under brief and only partially effective attack in the 1950s and 1960s, but the attack was enough to shatter the public’s deference toward scientists and experts in general. The problems of the 1950s and 1960s also revealed a crucial weakness in the ideology of corporate science and state science: it was not capable of providing ideas and solutions to fundamental problems of justice and power. The 1960s were a paradoxical period for American scientists. The ideas of the corporate scientists and state scientists were crucial aspects of America’s governing ideology, yet scientists themselves were not central figures in the state. Big science had joined with big business and big government over the first half of the twentieth century, but the cost of those alliances was the steady suppression of scientists’ voices as public figures and the redirection of their political ambitions towards the interests of their institutional patrons.

The first people to hear the news of the atomic bomb were the people likely to be at home in the middle of the day on a Monday, and thus near a radio (the elderly, children, housewives). Thus the Bomb was something that was highly integrated into daily American life from the moment it was used in Japan, it was not something that could be hidden from the family at home, due almost entirely to the integration of other technology, such as the radio and television, into the home. After the initial shock, Americans seemingly rallied and took the atomic bomb in stride. Comedians (not all of them professionals) strained to find humor in the new weapon. A radio newscaster commented that Hiroshima “looked like Ebbetts Field after a game between the Giants and the Dodgers.”[19] Others joked that Japan was suffering from “atomic ache.”[20] Only the radio entertainer-Milton Berle-explicitly refused to make jokes about the atomic bomb. While many Americans had, and still have, no real understanding of the science behind the bomb, or exactly what makes the bomb so terrifying, there seemed to be at least a general fascination of the object shared by most Americans, as well as a sort of primal fear. This primal fear of extinction cut across all political and ideological lines, from the staunchly conservative Chicago Tribune, which wrote bleakly of an atomic war that would leave Earth “a barren waste, in which the survivors of the race will hide in caves or live among ruins,” to such liberal voices as the New Republic, which offered an almost identical vision of a conflict that would “obliterate all the great cities of the belligerents, [and] bring industry and technology to a grinding halt,…[leaving only] scattered remnants of humanity living on the periphery of civilization.”[21]

As Isaac Asimov later put it, science-fiction writers were ‘salvaged into respectability’ by Hiroshima.[22] Asimov would seem to be correct in this assertion, since the period where Vonnegut published his first four novels, and countless short stories, saw what can be considered a revival of American science-fiction. Asimov’s most famous collection of stories, I, Robot, was published only a few years before the publication of Player Piano, in 1950. While neither of those novels specifically deal with nuclear weapons, and the worlds they create, they do speak to certain apprehensions about changing technology in line with the apprehensions voiced about the Bomb, though Asimov is much more positive than Vonnegut on where sentient technology can take us. Philip K. Dick, probably most well-known for his work in the 1960s, namely The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), as well as the prestigious science-fiction award bearing his name which has been awarded since 1983, spent the 1950s pondering the effects of the Bomb in The World Jones Made (1954), Eye in the Sky (1955), and Time Out of Joint (1958). These three novels deal intimately with the Bomb but in vastly different ways. The World Jones Made is set in a dystopian future, the year 2002, decades after a nuclear war has occurred, and deals with the aftermath of human society after nuclear fallout. This is quite a bit different from both Eye in the Sky and Time Out of Joint, which instead choose to deal with nuclear weapons in a more roundabout manner. Both take a premise that there is some sort of looming technology or threat that is alien to humans, that this threat could cause the end of civilization as we know it. It is only at the end that the reader is brought to the truth that this alien technology is actually nuclear weapons, and that rather than being otherworldly, it is a threat made entirely by humans themselves. This alien invasion as a metaphor for the Bomb is a fairly common trope during the 1950s, including in Vonnegut’s own work, Sirens of Titan (1959), and many of the films of the era.[23]

While Sirens of Titan is not an area of focus for it, in this particular discussion it is worth noting the placement of the novel between Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle and the science fiction tropes that Vonnegut is playing with in the text. It is his second novel and is overwhelming considered the one which deals most heavily in science fiction as a genre, and much of the story revolved around a Martian invasion of the Earth. However, it also deals in some later themes which Vonnegut explores in his later works. This is the first novel where a character, Winston Rumfoord, is unstuck in time, a theme which Vonnegut returns to most famously in Slaughterhouse Five. The reader is also introduced to the alien race of the Tralfamadorians, who famously make being unstuck in time possible. The novel also deals heavily with the dark comedy and pessimism about humanity that Vonnegut is so famous for in his early novels (he likes to end the world without imagining any place for hope in the first half of his career). But, most importantly for this discussion, is the fact that Vonnegut is describing a war between humans and Martians (who closely resemble humans) where there is technology on both sides that could utterly destroy all life, similar to other alien invasion stories of this period.

While many pieces of fiction dealt with the pure destructive aspect of nuclear bombs, often in films they only end with the Bomb going off rather than taking screen time to deal with the after-effects of the Bomb. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is the most notable of this type of film, since it deals exclusively with the lead up to the dropping of the Bomb, rather than what comes next. This is often why there are so many films that deal with alien invasion as a metaphor for the dropping of the Bomb and the outside threat. However, some works, such as 1984 (1949) by George Orwell, Limbo (1952) by Bernard Wolfe, and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury, with intimately deal with a world and the after-effects of the Bomb. All of these works are notable, and similar, because they imagine a world were atomic weapons are routinely dropped on civilian populations, and the society that arises from the destruction is usually authoritarian in some manner.[24]

In Vonnegut lies some of the darkest reflections of these technologies, and musing about this specific age in human scientific endeavor. Vonnegut’s pessimism and dark humor are defining characteristics of his writing, often noted by those who study him as the hallmark of what makes Vonnegut worth studying.[25] However, that general pessimism combined with his skepticism of general twentieth century technology, and fear more specifically of military technologies, Vonnegut offers something different in his views of world ending technologies. While the scientists involved in the writing of One World or None try to make the argument that, even though the Bomb has been created, we must not use it again, and that with effort we can make sure it is not used on civilians ever again, Vonnegut does not believe that is true, based on his writing in Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut sees that once the technology, in this case ice-nine, is created, it is inevitable that it will be used to destroy the world. There is no escaping it. The world will end by our own hand once we create technologies that can complete that very task.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle. (New York: Dial Press, 2010): 17

[2] Ibid., 1

[3] Ibid., 7

[4] Albert Rosenfeld. The Quintessence of Irving Langmuir. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1966): 107

[5] Ibid., 136

[6] Irving Langmuir. “An Atomic Arms Race and Its Alternative” in One World or None edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1946): 47

[7] David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, and Richard Rhodes, “Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction.” In The Paris Review No. 69 (Spring 1977): 37

[8] “The Federation of American Scientists represents men who saw both a hope and a threat in the bomb they worked so long to help create. They have known the facts, they have seen and studied them for years, while still everything was secret. Now the facts are out. They are visible in the rusted rubble of Hiroshima. They are here, in this book, in your hands. Unless these facts become real to you, unless you learn from them as we have learned from them-that we all must act-there will be no answer ever to our problem. Never have people had the opportunity and the responsibility which the citizens of the United States have today. We must learn how to use them, for after an atomic war no good will and intelligence will be needed to bring a permanent peace to the survivors. They will get in the jumbled stones of their cities.” The Federation of American Atomic Scientists “Survival is at Stake” in One World or None edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1946): 79

[9] Albert Einstein. “The Way Out.” in One World or None edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1946): 76

[10] Philip Morrison. “If the Bomb Gets Out of Hand ” in One World or None edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1946): 2

[11] Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 49

[12] Mark Greif. The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 61

[13] Patrick McGrath. Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890-1960. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 1

[14] Jacob Darwin Hamblin. “A Global Containment Zone.” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War edited by J.R. McNeill, Corinna R. Unger (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 87

[15]Kristine Harper and Ronald Doel “Environmental Diplomacy in the Cold War” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War edited by J.R. McNeill, Corinna R. Unger (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 116

[16] Patrick McGrath. Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890-1960. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 130

[17] Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 51

[18] Patrick McGrath. Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890-1960. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002): 158

[19] Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 10

[20] Ibid., 10

[21] Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 15

[22]Paul Boyer. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985): 257

[23] Most notably: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Beginning or the End (1947), The Day the Sky Exploded (1961), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962), The Day the Earth Ended (1956), and various adaptations of The War of the Worlds that were recreated throughout the 1950s. The presence of aliens took on a new meaning in conjunction with nuclear weapons.

[24] Though, this is much like the question of the chicken and the egg as to which came first. Were the societies already authoritarian and then they used nuclear weapons, or was it the use of the Bomb that caused authoritarian regimes to be built out of the ashes? It is not particularly clear in any of the texts.

[25] He has been compared to Mark Twain for this use of humor, though is a much darker way.